Must-Visit Attractions in Belgium

The Grand Place and market square surrounded by guild halls in Brussels, Belgium.
The Grand Place and market square surrounded by guild halls in Brussels, Belgium. | © Sorin Colac / Alamy Stock Photo
Nana Van De Poel

Nestled between Germany and France, the small country of Belgium has every reason to be confident in its cultural offerings. From Medieval fairytale settings to vast nature reserves and eerie ghost towns, here are the best places to visit in Belgium.

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The Atomium

Building, Memorial, Historical Landmark

The Atomium is one of Brussels’s most recognisable landmarks

Nine giant steel balls connected with thin tubes: it’s what Belgium and its capital Brussels call one of their ultimate symbols, the Atomium. The remarkable architectural structure was designed to look like an elementary iron crystal blown up to 165 billion times its size. The crown jewel to Brussels’ 1958 World’s Fair, the gravity-defying Atomium has remained a defining part of the city’s skyline. The sculpture now sits on the Heysel Plateau in Laeken, a suburb in northwestern Brussels, where the expo took place.

Napoleon’s Waterloo

Memorial
The hundreds of re-enactors who come together annually to remember Napoleon’s defeat by the United Kingdom, Prussia, Hanover, the Netherlands, Nassau and Brunswick on the fields near Waterloo in 1815 are proof that the battle lives on in the collective imagination. Besides the yearly spectacle, the Lion’s Mound – a man-made hill with a statue of a lion at the top, about 20km (12mi) south of Brussels – and several of other memorials recall the coalition’s victory over the French general more than two centuries ago.

Brussels’ Grand Place

Building, Memorial

The Grand Palace is a late-17th century landmark located in the capital’s central square, which is considered one of Europe’s finest

Tell an extravagant architect to come up with a prosperous, late Medieval market square, and chances are you’ll get something like Brussels’s Grand Place. The plaza, hidden from view and accessible through one of six spindly cobbled alleys, is guaranteed to overwhelm with dozens of baroque guild houses, the ornate King’s House, now the city museum, and the 15th-century City Hall. All contribute to the remarkably homogeneous look of Europe’s best-preserved Medieval plaza.

Victor Horta’s Major Townhouses

Museum, Architectural Landmark

Hotel Solvay is one of the finest examples of architect Victor Horta’s work in Brussels

Often exalted as the father of the art nouveau movement, Victor Horta has left Brussels dotted with innovative townhouses that changed the face of late 19th-century architecture in the West. If you’re short on time and have to choose between his four Unesco-labelled townhouses, the Horta Museum honours the artist in his former home and workshop, the Maison & Atelier Horta in the Brussels suburb of Saint-Gilles, while Unesco describes the Hotel Solvay in central Brussels as “the most ambitious and spectacular” of his work in the art nouveau period.

St Bavo’s Cathedral and the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb

Cathedral, Church
The most stolen piece of art in the world resides in Ghent’s Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, its rightful home ever since Jan van Eyck and lesser-known brother Hubert created it in 1432. More commonly referred to as the Ghent Altarpiece, the 12-panel polyptych has survived a tumultuous eight centuries. Seen as the first great painting that kick-started the Renaissance, the work was taken by Napoleon’s troops, commandeered by the Nazis, recovered from salt mines by the “monuments men” and at one point sold by a duplicitous priest.

Flanders Fields

Museum
For the better part of World War I, allied troops found themselves buried in a gruesome trench-war stalemate in the fields surrounding Ypres, in the Flemish part of Belgium. Memorials dot the countryside and city, and the nearly destroyed Cloth Hall is now the In Flanders Fields Museum, named after the poem by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae.

The Basilica of the Holy Blood

Church, Building, Memorial
Squeezed into a corner on the generally pale, cream-coloured Burg Square in Bruges’ historic core, the darker-hued, romanesque Basilica of the Holy Blood, built in the 12th century, stands out like a sore thumb. Of course, the extraordinary chapel contains an extraordinary relic; a vial believed to contain the blood of Jesus, which is brought out for worship every day.

The Bruges Belfry

Building

The Belfry of Bruges at night

If you’re deciding what to see in Belgium, or more specifically its most picturesque city, then climbing the Bruges Belfry’s 366 steps is an excellent way to start – survey the cobweb of Medieval streets in this Venice of the North and decide which buildings you want to see up close. The belfry itself was used for spotting fires or other threats to the city, after it was built in the market square in 1240. The tower itself caught fire 40 years later and although the belfry was successfully rebuilt, the city archives were destroyed.

The Hallerbos or blue forest

Forest
Spring forests overflowing with bluebells are not just a feature of the a British countryside. They exist all over Europe, and Belgium’s Hallerbos, which lies mainly in the Flemish Brabant region, puts on a particularly lovely display. Timing is everything on this one. The purple carpet of flowers can appear anytime between the start of April and the end of May, and only sticks around for a couple of weeks.

The Beaufort Project’s permanent pieces

Architectural Landmark

Rock Strangers by artist Arne Quinze at the seaside resort of Ostend (Oostende) in West Flanders, Belgium.

Since the Beaufort Project started, more and more strange-looking sculptures have popped up in Belgium’s coastal towns. From Arne Quinze’s giant, indented orange titans (Rock Strangers) in Ostend, to Jan Fabre’s self-portrait that has him riding a massive bronze turtle (Searching for Utopia) in Nieuwpoort, the exceptional pieces that earned a permanent spot at the end of the public art triennial make the country’s seaside a more exciting place to explore.

The Grand Curtius Museum

Museum
It might not be on many people’s lists of what to do in Belgium, but history and anthropology buffs will find their own piece of heaven in Liège’s Grand Curtius Museum. Archaeological objects are preserved and displayed in great numbers, telling the tale of humanity and our evolution through the ages. Thanks to the merging of several other museums into the Grand Curtius, including those specialising in arms and decorative arts, it tells this story from several perspectives.

The charming town of Durbuy

Architectural Landmark

Panoramic landscape of Durbuy, Belgium, renowned as the smallest city in the world.

Tiny Durbuy, a cheery storybook town on the banks of the Ourthe River in the forested Ardennes region, is one of the cutest places to visit in Belgium. This “smallest city in the world” with a population of around 11,300, is an ideal base for long hikes or kayaking trips. The artisan jam factory and quirky topiary park can’t help but up the quirky factor considerably.

The High Fens

Natural Feature, Architectural Landmark
In a natural no-man’s-land straddling the Belgian-German border, the High Fens nature reserve, with its mysterious moors and rare wildlife, makes for a hiker’s dream. Be on the lookout for wild boar, the hen harrier bird, and the protected black grouse. The fens are closed during droughts, when there is a high risk of fire.

The Rubens House

Museum

The artist Rubens’ house in Antwerp (Antwerpen), Belgium.

That Peter Paul Rubens was a man of many talents is evident when entering his home and workshop in Antwerp. The Italian-style home now offers glimpses of the painter’s art and that of his contemporaries, as well as objects he would have used in his life, including a silver ewer and basin.

Antwerp’s MAS and neighbourhood Het Eilandje

Museum
Out of Antwerp’s tight relationship with the sea – the Belgian capital of cool is also Europe’s second largest port – the impressive MAS museum, one of the most imposing of Belgium landmarks, was born. And the MAS, in turn, took care of the rebirth of the old dock neighbourhood Het Eilandje. To get a panoramic view of one of Antwerp’s hippest neighbourhoods, climb the museum’s freely accessible “horizontal boulevard”.

The Plantin-Moretus Museum

Museum, Library

Plantin Moretus Museum

Precious 16th-century dictionaries that creak upon opening, some of the world’s oldest printing presses and the copper plates that revolutionised printing technology are among the wonders you’ll find at the Plantin-Moretus Museum. The museum is at the former Plantin Press, and this is where the first atlas and the multi-language Plantin Polyglot Bible was printed.

The Carnaval de Binche

Amusement Park
In the small Walloon town of Binche, clown-like figures known as “Gilles”, which are meant to ward off evil spirits, have been celebrating Mardi Gras by parading around town in ostrich plume hats and pelting oranges at the crowd (don’t throw them back – they’re considered good luck) for as long as memory serves.

The ghost town of Doel

Architectural Landmark
An accidental ghost town in the shadows of a nuclear power plant – and therefore a graffiti haven – the village of Doel in East Flanders was long ago slated for demolition to expand the harbour of Antwerp, but protests have stopped this happening so far, and the town is in limbo. It has become an unofficial urban canvas for Belgian and international street artists in which to go hog-wild. Fittingly, seeing as Doel looks like it’s right out of a post-apocalyptic film, there is a dwindling population of rebel inhabitants who refuse to leave.

The abandoned IM cooling tower

Building
Talking about urban explorers’ pilgrimages, the abandoned IM power plant of Charleroi is one for the books. Entering its sky-high cooling tower, which was built in 1921, and looking up from its moss-covered bowels is enough to send shivers down the spine. Security guards are often on-site to prevent explorers from entering the aging construction, though, as safety can’t be guaranteed.

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